Thursday, July 24, 2014

South Saskatchewan Regional Plan released

Detail from cover of SSRP document
Chris Davis, from multiple press releases and other sources

The Alberta government today announced the release of the final copy of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP), a document that has been at least 5 years in the making, and involved input from more than 7,500 Albertans.

According to the government the land-use plan "will help manage growth pressures and protect the environment in southern Alberta" for at least the next ten years, projected to be the outline for the next 50 years.

The SSRP is the second of seven regional land-use plans approved since the October 2009 passing of Bill 36, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act.  The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan was the first, approved by Cabinet on August 22, 2012.  The first phase of public consultation for the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan is currently underway.
"The South Saskatchewan Region includes the South Saskatchewan River Basin, the Milk River Basin and the Alberta portion of the Cypress Hills. The region includes 15 municipal districts, one specialized municipality, two improvement districts, five cities, 29 towns, 23 villages, two summer villages, and seven First Nations. The South Saskatchewan Region covers 83,764 km² or about 12.6 per cent of the total area of Alberta. About 1.6 million people live in the region, or 45 per cent of the provincial population." ~ excerpt from draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan

image from draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan

Developed with a 50-year outlook in mind, the plan will go into effect on September 1. Estimated cost for SSRP implementation in year one is $4.5 million for operation and $1.2 million in capital costs
The government involved the public and stakeholders with several opportunities to participate in community consultations and conversations, and via an online workbook during the process of developing and refining the plan.
“The South Saskatchewan region is without question one of the most beautiful areas of our province with its breathtaking mountains, rolling grasslands and many lakes and rivers. Albertans are proud of the beauty of our province and the new land-use plan will manage the growth pressures in this region so our children and grandchildren will benefit from a pristine environment and a growing economy.” - Premier Dave Hancock
According to the government's press release, highlights of the SSRP include eight new or expanded conservation areas, including a new 54,588-hectare Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the 34,356-hectare Pekisko Heritage Rangeland.  It also includes two new and six expanded provincial parks and recreation areas (an addition of 1,511 hectares) and 12 new primitive recreation areas for camping and trail access.  The plan also includes a regional trail system linking communities, parks, and outdoor spaces and "strategies for responsible energy development, sustainable farming and ranching, forest management, and nature-based tourism".

"The plan takes important steps to protect Alberta’s intact native grasslands. This distinctive Alberta landscape, prized in North America, continues to exist because of the stewardship practices of local ranchers. The SSRP extends grazing leases for ranchers demonstrating strong stewardship practices from 10 to 20 years. The SSRP also includes guidelines to manage sales of public lands and minimize conversion of intact native grasslands, and will explore options for new conservation areas working with ranchers, industry and other stakeholders." - Government of Alberta Press Release
“Our government continues to ensure that we are planning for the future and looking at the big picture considering the cumulative impacts of all of our activities on the land. This plan was created by Albertans and strikes the right balance of recreation and economic opportunity while protecting the environment and achieving conservation goals.” - Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Robin Campbell

The SSRP was a 2012 provincial election issue in Livingstone-Macleod, an election that saw Wildrose challenger Pat Stier defeat PC incumbent Evan Berger.  Berger was Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and served as the point man for the SSRP process until that time.

"It's a huge document and it will take a while to get a proper analysis done," said Stier today, taking a break from his vacation. "For Livingstone-Macleod I am going to spend a lot of time comparing it to the two previous phases of the process to see what they have changed."

Stier said he was "concerned about landowners rights remaining intact, environmental issues of course and the impacts this may have on municipalities".

Reaction from several conservation groups and Wildrose Environment Critic Shayne Saskiw was swift and negative.

"The Castle Special Place was designated by Premier Klein during Special Places 2000, one of 80 new protected areas in the province. The Castle, however, never received its final designation and over the past decade and a half has seen steady erosion of its ecological value as a result of logging, rampant off-highway vehicle use and oil and gas development. Under the new plan only 55% of the Castle will be protected." - from joint press release from Y2Y, CCWC, CPAWS, and Alberta Wilderness Association
"The final copy of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) released today remains too complex, too intrusive into the property rights of landowners and will be rigorously reviewed by the Wildrose to ensure Alberta is meeting the increasing conservation and economic growth for the region." - Wildrose Environment Critic Shayne Saskiw

“There is little improvement over the last draft of the SSRP,” said Wendy Francis of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y). “Albertans have been very clear that they wanted to see the Castle Special Place protected in its entirety, and that hasn’t happened. All the government has done is change the designation of the Castle Conservation Area from Public Land Use Zone to Wildland Park. The total of 546 square kilometers, most of which is still rock and snow, falls far short of the 1020 square kilometers Albertan’s have demanding for three decades. As a result we can’t support this plan.”

According to Gord Petersen of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition (CCWC)  “The government found it easier to ignore the concerns of the vast majority of Albertans about the Castle than to stand up to industry and motorized recreation groups. Albertans have been telling the government that we expect top-to-bottom protection for Castle. It is vital to conserve the headwaters of the Oldman River, to protect bull trout and grizzly bears, and to ensure wildlife connectivity along the Rocky Mountains. Three-quarters of local residents are in support of protection. This should have been easy for the government to do. Instead of listening to common sense solutions that we have suggested, they’ve taken the easy way out. With the exception of 100 square kilometers, they are simply re-designating areas protected through existing policy."

“The mountains and foothills of southern Alberta are natural water towers for millions of people downstream, and protecting these headwaters has been a priority for Albertans for decades,” said Kate Semrau of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). “The whole purpose of land use planning was to resolve conflicts by dedicating certain areas to different uses. This was the government’s opportunity to show leadership by formally protecting the Castle and they failed to do so.”

 “We’ll continue to advocate for 1020 square kilometers of the Castle to be legislatively designated as a Wildland Provincial Park,” said Brittany Verbeek of the Alberta Wilderness Association.  “This is what Albertans expect of their government: for them to listen to average citizens and not just industry groups with the ear of the government.”

According to Wildrose Environment Critic Shayne Saskiw the focus on environmental protection of the eastern slopes and water management is "long overdue, however, the PC government’s return to a flawed centralized approach failed to address the unique and diverse interests throughout the region from the beginning."

Saskiw said the Alberta Land Stewardship Act  "removed local autonomy from decision making and gives highly centralized ministerial oversight over all land-use frameworks."

“Having a centralized land use plan for an area covering 84,000 square kilometres and bulldozing the rights of landowners and local authorities in the process was a misguided approach,” said Saskiw. “What this region needs is a plan that looked to protect the environment and secure economic prosperity by respecting property rights and strengthening the role and voice of municipalities. Albertans can be assured the Wildrose will be poring over the SSRP to make sure their concerns are heard.”

“We need to do land use planning that respects the voice of landowners and municipalities while ensuring environmental and economic concerns are properly addressed,” Saskiw said. “Albertans can be assured the SSRP will be closely scrutinized.”

Others have indicated they aren't willing to comment until they've had time to analyze the 200 page SSRP document.

To be continued...

Related links:
South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (pdf)
AESRD Blog: How SSRP reflects your feedback
Summary of SSRP Public Information Sessions (pdf)

Related stories etc:
Draft of South Saskatchewan Regional Plan released (Oct. 2013)
SSRP draft will have broad implications: MLA Pat Stier (Oct. 2013)
Source to Tap hosts water discussion

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